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Menopause: One of many changes in life

Lankenau Medical Center September 5, 2008 By Marina Cooney, MD

“The sandwich generation” is a phrase we have all heard. Our midlife years present many challenges and opportunities. Learning to balance sometimes competing responsibilities can be difficult. Dr. Marina Cooney discusses how to meet these new challenges while continuing to grow and enjoy our lives. – Beverly Vaughn, MD, Medical Coordinator, Menopause and You Program

Midlife brings pivotal changes in women’s roles

Menopause is often referred to as the “change of life” because it is the stage of life when a woman permanently stops having menstrual periods and the end of her childbearing ability. However, the phraseology “change of life” is a gross understatement of all the major changes that a woman may go through simultaneously during this time.

In addition to being a time of great changes physiologically, emotionally and psychologically, menopause is also a time when women experience many pivotal changes in the various roles they play in their lives.

Not only do a woman's biological functions change and eventually diminish as she approaches menopause, so do the roles she has experienced for many years in the first half of her life. Women are faced with challenges involving her roles as wife, mother, daughter, and career person, to name a few.

A common phenomenon associated with role changes during menopause is the “empty nest syndrome.” With children leaving home, many women, including working mothers, feel they have lost their primary role as mother. Women need to entertain a certain amount of letting go of their children while renegotiating the relationship with grown children.

Some women who long for the experience of an "empty nest" may find themselves becoming caretakers of elderly and sick parents often sooner than they expected. They may also find themselves becoming the primary caretaker for their grandchildren who have working mothers. These women may feel robbed of the freedom and free time they thought would be afforded to them once their children left home.

Women who were homemakers for the first half of their lives may now have the time and the opportunity to further their education and discover new career opportunities. Women who have been working mothers may find the opportunity to put renewed interest and time in their careers. Other women find themselves able to put more time and effort into hobbies for which they never had time. The emergence of a new and independent woman free to use her time and energy as she chooses can be a wonderful experience.

During middle age a woman's marital role may change dramatically. A woman's sexual role may change as she becomes freer sexually, unencumbered by the possibility of pregnancy, or she may experience loss of desire due in part to physical changes. At the same time her partner may be experiencing impotence or loss of libido.

Some women go through divorce or separation during this time. Finding oneself suddenly single during middle age, while at the same time coping with the changes in body image often experienced during menopause, can be especially challenging for women.

Feeling good about oneself is part of coping successfully

Although menopause is a universal experience for women, each will experience it in a different way. A woman should consider her own perceptions about this transition. Women who perceive aging and their changing life roles negatively have greater difficulties with emotional problems. Many women find they can improve their outlook by sharing and building support groups with other women.

During this time of transition, it is more important than ever for women to make sure they exercise regularly, eat well and get plenty of sleep. This advice may sound cliché, but these measures are significant in helping women to avoid fatigue and mood swings. Women who are in good health feel better about themselves and experience an improved quality of life, which makes it easier to cope with their shifting roles and the hormonal imbalances and changes associated with menopause.

In caring for themselves, women should take time out for activities that bring them joy, relaxation and a sense of fulfillment. Doing so on a routine basis helps women to rejuvenate, so they have the emotional energy they need to handle all their other responsibilities.

After spending a lifetime caring for others, some women have difficulty identifying new areas of interest during menopause. Some benefit from participating in lifestyle courses or seek the help of a professional life coach. A life coach helps them realize where their interests lie, what they are good at, and what kind of work and/or relationships would bring them satisfaction. Other women seek advice from close friends, supportive family, a therapist or a health professional.

As women age, sexuality remains extremely important and plays a significant role in self-esteem, self-image and overall quality of life. Those with positive attitudes about aging and their changing roles report an increase in sexual feelings, heightened sexuality and higher self-esteem. Women should communicate openly with their partners and talk about the physical, sexual and emotional changes they are experiencing.

Menopause is a time of transition. Some women view this time of change as rather daunting, while others find it freeing and exhilarating. Most women adapt to new roles quickly. Menopause affords a woman the opportunity to grow in areas she many never have considered previously. It can be a time of new beginnings and endless possibilities.

This article is part of Menopause and You, a web-based program sponsored by Women’s Health Source. It is intended as an information resource providing guidelines for women. As always, check with your own health care provider with your specific concerns and questions.

To speak with our nurse counselor, call 1.888.876.8764 or email whs@mlhs.org.

Membership on the medical staff of Main Line Health hospitals does not constitute an employment or agency relationship.